After several days of rhetorical flailing, Ben Carson, a physician running for the Republican Party nomination for US president, finally settled on his rationalisation for opposing a Muslim American president. Having first said that he “absolutely would not agree” with the prospect, Mr Carson explained that what he is actually opposed to is theocracy. “If you’re a Christian and you’re running for president and you want to make this into a theocracy, I’m not going to support you,” he insisted.
Mr Carson now claims his stigmatising of Muslims as uniquely ineligible for chief executive was a boilerplate defence of political secularism that would be embraced by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Had he simply taken a clear stance against theocracy from the outset, there would have been no controversy. Almost no one in the US favours establishing a theocracy, and Mr Carson’s opposition to that is about as unobjectionable as anything in American political culture.
Indeed, Article VI of the constitution as originally drafted stated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”. Some of its opponents at the time openly fretted that, because of this clause, “Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans”, or that it might “open a door for Jews, Turks and infidels”. Nonetheless, the US constitution was ratified and Article VI has never been challenged, either legally or politically. At least in theory.
In practice, of course, all American presidents to date, with one exception, have been Protestant Christians (and all, again with one exception, have been white males). When John F Kennedy was running for the presidency in 1960, he had to overcome the same kind of vicious anti-Catholic bigotry that helped sink the 1928 Democratic nominee, Al Smith.
Both Smith and Kennedy were the target of dark insinuations, and sometimes overt accusations, that a Catholic could not be trusted to make decisions as president from an independent, American point of view. They would always be subordinate to the church, the clergy and, particularly, the Pope. Any real Catholic, true to his religion, the bigots argued, would have no choice but to defer to the divinely ordained authorities they follow as a matter of faith.
To be a good American, or at least a good American president, this pseudo-logic held, required one to be a bad Catholic. A Catholic president would have to choose between his country and his church. They would at least govern theocratically, if not directly try to impose a theocracy.
Smith let the issue linger too long, and addressed it ineffectively. Anti-Catholic bigotry was so strong that there is no doubt his religious affiliation significantly contributed to his overwhelming defeat at the hands of Herbert Hoover. Kennedy, by contrast, tackled the issue directly and convinced the public that his religious identity would not influence his decision-making as the president of a secular republic “that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish”.
Mr Carson’s remarks spring from a now-familiar Islamophobic discourse that suggests that Muslims, similarly, cannot have an independent political identity or agenda and must be driven entirely by religious motivations. This discourse is based on a caricature of mainstream Islam which holds, among other things – as both Mr Carson and his senior campaign officials have recently insisted – that Islam commands that all people of other faiths must be killed and that lying is a religious duty.
The essential claim, previously levelled routinely at Catholics and Jews, is that one can be either a bad Muslim and a good American, or a good Muslim and a bad American, but not a good American and a good Muslim. Ironically, Mr Carson’s intolerant outburst has been supported by a small group of prominent Catholic Americans like Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly.
Moreover, if there is a genuine constituency in the United States that actually yearns for the creation of a theocracy, it’s not among Muslim Americans. It’s on the Republican Christian religious right, exactly where Mr Carson has his own political base. “Christian Dominionists”, as they are called by their advocates seek an America governed exclusively by Christians ruling according to religious law, and are a small but significant, and apparently growing, factor in the Republican Party.
Mr Carson himself appears to hold some suggestive religious views. He condemns scientific discoveries about the Big Bang and evolution, implying they are “satanic” in origin. He recently, and indefensibly, characterised the United States as “a Judeo-Christian nation”, whatever that might be. That comment alone brings him perilously close to his own standard for ineligibility.
Almost all Americans, undoubtedly including a large majority of Muslim Americans, would agree that anyone seeking to replace the constitution with a theocracy is unfit to be president. Mr Carson may not be a full-blown Christian Dominionist, but he’s far too close for the comfort of anyone who truly values government that is neutral on religious matters. His anti-Muslim bigotry alone hardly promises neutrality. If Mr Carson’s argument undermine anyone’s candidacy, it's surely his own.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog